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Unfinished business: Group of PhD students will walk in commencement 50 years after earning degrees

May 5, 2023 By Doug Erickson

A balloon release at the 1978 spring commencement. A number of alumni who earned their master’s and PhD degrees in the 1970s from the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics will be attending this year’s commencement ceremony. Photo by Tom Rust

For decades, something nagged a little at Wes Weidemann.

He had earned a doctorate in agricultural economics from UW–Madison in 1973 but was not able to take part in commencement. On the day of the ceremony, he was already working in Nigeria for the Rockefeller Foundation.

Wes Weidemann

“I’d always sort of regretted missing it, but I’d never had the opportunity or the excuse to come back,” says Weidemann, of Springfield, Massachusetts. “When the time came that I retired, I thought, ‘Well, here’s something I started but didn’t finish.’”

On May 12, Weidemann will close the loop. As part of UW–Madison’s spring commencement ceremonies, he will walk across the stage at the Kohl Center in full regalia and hear his name called.

“Wow, I think that will just be so gratifying,” says Weidemann, who sold his international economic consulting business in 2014 and retired. “I know some people might think it’s a little foolish, but I really want to do it.”

Weidemann won’t be alone. Once he found out that the university would welcome his presence, he reached out to other agricultural economics graduate students from 50 years ago and invited them to join him.

Like Weidemann, Bruce Weber earned a PhD in agricultural economics from UW–Madison in 1973 and did not take part in commencement. Unlike his classmate, Weber says he really doesn’t have a good excuse.

“A lot of us didn’t participate in graduation back then, and as I’ve thought about, I’ve sort of wondered what it was we were resisting,” says Weber, a professor emeritus of applied economics at Oregon State University.

Photo: A man sits at a desk and smiles at the camera.

Bruce Weber and his wife, Bobbie, will travel from Corvallis, Oregon, to take part in UW–Madison’s 2023 spring commencement ceremony, 50 years after he earned his PhD.

Weber and his wife Bobbie, also a UW–Madison alum, will travel from Corvallis, Oregon, to attend.

“I’m really looking forward to being back in Madison and being able to participate in that ceremony,” he says. “It gives you a chance to both reflect on what you’ve been given in life and how you’ve lived out what you prepared to do when you went to school. And it will be a chance to perhaps meet with current students and give them a sense of what lies ahead for them.”

The weekend has turned into a full-fledged reunion. The Department of Agricultural & Applied Economics (AAE) embraced the idea, inviting all PhD and master’s degree graduates from the 1970s to take part. Kimberly Santiago, the department’s communications and advancement coordinator, helped Weidemann track down other former classmates — not an easy task given the nonexistence of email and the lack of portable phone numbers 50 years ago.

More than a dozen alumni of the program are expected to attend. The department has put together several days of events, including a “Meet and Greet” at Memorial Union Terrace and an alumni luncheon at the Pyle Center.

“We feel very honored that these accomplished alumni still feel so attached to AAE and UW–Madison that they want to join us for commencement many years after completing their degrees,” says Professor Guanming Shi, Renk Agribusiness Chair and department chair. “We are excited to welcome them back and hope it is a joyous and meaningful weekend for them.”

The returning alumni will join current graduates at a departmental graduation celebration where all PhD students will be hooded. In a special nod to the past, the returning alumni will be hooded by Daniel Bromley, the Anderson-Bascom Professor Emeritus of Applied Economics. He joined the UW faculty in 1969 and taught many of the alumni.

John and Ulla Connor will also be attending the commencement.

John and Ulla Connor of Indianapolis have made plans to attend. Both earned doctorates from UW — John in agricultural economics in 1976 and Ulla in education and English linguistics in 1978. Even though they both took part in their respective commencement ceremonies, they are looking forward to the reunion aspect of the weekend.

“The opportunity to come back and see some of the people in my cohort and reconnect with them is very appealing,” says John Connor, a professor emeritus in agricultural economics at Purdue University. “We’ll have a fine time catching up, I’m sure.”

Connor recalls his time on campus fondly. A vast majority of agricultural economics graduate students back then had served in the Peace Corps, so it was easy to bond tightly with classmates, he says.

“Many of us lived at Eagle Heights,” he says. “We gardened there and biked to and from campus. We were surrounded by other young couples who shared our interests. It was a lovely time.”

Weber says he remains grateful for the education and support he received at UW.

“It’s a highly regarded department,” he says. “Coming out of there with a Wisconsin degree was a very good thing. It set us up for success.”

Many of the alumni will be returning to campus for the first time in years or decades.

“But I’m still very much a cheesehead,” assures Weidemann, a three-time Badger who grew up near Marshall, Wisconsin. “Whenever UW plays somewhere, I’m searching the channels to find the game.”

UW–Madison holds two ceremonies during spring commencement. The Kohl Center ceremony on Friday evening is for doctoral students, MFA students and medical professionals. The Saturday ceremony at Camp Randall Stadium is for bachelor’s, master’s and law degree students.